With many of the area's farmers and ranchers reaching retirement age, and much of the area's youth moving away after high school and college, who will be tomorrow's farmers?
If anyone knows, and knows them personally, it's probably Cassandra Shenk.
In 2009, Shenk started Teens on Farms, a county-wide non-profit whose mission includes providing confidence and leadership skills to the area's youth through agricultural employment, while helping to meet the needs of North Fork farmers.
Shenk, who lives in Hotchkiss with her husband and two daughters, is an educator with a background in science and business. She was part of an eight-person round-table discussion last Saturday, hosted by the Delta County Democrats where she spoke of "the value of young people and how they are an untapped resource, for our economy and for our community." Farms are part of what makes the area beautiful, and it takes a lot of work to keep them functioning, Shenk said. "How many of you know the work that it takes to water those fields?"
Simply put, farming takes a lot of hard work, and many area farmers lack the resources or don't want to hire young people because they lack a strong work ethic. Teens on Farms networks on behalf of farmers to find young people willing to work on farms. The program teaches solid work ethics and provides payroll and insurance, while farmers provide educations in farming through first-hand experience.
Mountain Harvest Creative, which hosts the 15th annual Mountain Harvest Festival this Friday through Sunday in Paonia, provides scholarships to cover wages as well as other support.
Produce grown by Teens on Farms and 4-H members as part of the Plants R Us program at the Maloney House property in Hotchkiss has been sold this summer at the Hotchkiss Farmer's Market. The Plants R Us program teaches kids about soil health and growing plants from seed to harvest, as well as expense planning and other skills related to running the market.
This Saturday during Mountain Harvest Festival, Plants R Us will open its farm market booth at Paonia Town Park. It offers an array of vegetables, including squash, peppers, root crops and cruciferous vegetables. The purple cauliflower matured just in time for the event, said Shenk. Plants R Us will be the only booth selling produce Saturday, with all other growers opening on Sunday.
After-school harvesting will continue through the end of the week, and planning can begin on the 2016 growing season.
"I want to see young people out there irrigating, learning about the soil, about the pasture," said Shenk. I know that if we take these people and teach them, that they will do great things. They will be thinkers. They will be doers."